Mesa Schools Reviewing Ex-priest
By Michael Clancy
July 25, 2013
[Marvin Knighton - Jeff Anderson & Associates]
A former Milwaukee priest who was thrown out of the clergy as a result of allegations that he sexually abused minors has been working as a faculty member in Mesa schools for the last six years.
Marvin Knighton, the former priest, had experience at several public schools in the Valley and good references, according to a Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman. The district is reviewing his status in light of newly available information.
Formal abuse allegations were filed against Knighton 11 years ago. He was acquitted in Milwaukee in 2003 of the abuse charges, involving a man who said he was about 15 at the time of the alleged incidents. Knighton was later convicted in a church trial and barred from the priesthood in 2011.
Details on the Knighton case were released July 1 as part of the recent bankruptcy filing by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The documents can be read in their entirety at the archdiocese’s website, archmil.org, or at the website of Anderson & Associates, the law firm representing a number of accusers in clergy-abuse cases, andersonadvocates.com.
The church trial, including an appeal, found credible evidence that Knighton abused two youths, including the individual involved in the criminal charge. It was a long, secretive process that started in 2002 with Knighton’s suspension from duties and ended in 2011 with his dismissal from the priesthood.
Transcripts of the church trial were not released, but the final decision from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was made available.
The document says church officials based their decision on the consistency of the two accusers’ claims, Knighton’s confusion about dates and places, and his failure to follow the direction of his superiors.
Knighton was not accused of raping his victims, the decision makes clear, but the church found he did hug, kiss, sleep with and “grind” or “hump” his accusers.
The church trial found Knighton innocent of abuse with a third accuser and did not consider a fourth accusation that the archdiocese received secondhand, from the alleged victim’s mother.
Only one of the four accusations was made in criminal court; the others were too old under Wisconsin’s statute of limitations.
Even as the church trial was going on, Knighton sought and found employment in several schools in the Phoenix area.
Besides his employment in Mesa schools, starting in 2007, Knighton worked in the Paradise Valley Unified School District as a substitute teacher from 2005 to 2007. He never was on the permanent payroll, despite filing job applications several times, spokeswoman Marty Macurak said.
Knighton previously worked in Scottsdale schools in the 1990s and at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix in 2000-01.
“Shame on school officials for either not doing a Google search ... or for doing one but erring on the side of recklessness,” said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Helen Hollands, communications director for Mesa schools, says Knighton has been employed since 2007, including stints as a counselor at Webster and Eisenhower elementary schools last year.
“No known allegations have arisen during his employment,” she said.
The district was aware of the 2003 criminal case, she said, but the Arizona Department of Education certified him as a teacher in 2004 after considering the charge, the acquittal and other factors, including the “successful adoption and raising of three sons.”
Minutes from the State Board of Education’s Professional Practices Advisory Committee indicate that members knew of at least the allegation for which Knighton was acquitted. They also knew a Milwaukee Archdiocese review board was considering his future with the church. The committee voted 5-0 to recommend his certification, based in part on his continuing priesthood.
Vince Yanez, executive director of the State Board of Education, said that the board takes allegations of sexual abuse seriously and that it also took Knighton’s acquittal seriously.
Asked about the church’s discipline of Knighton, Yanez said, “The underlying facts leading to the church’s actions were reviewed in both the criminal proceeding and in the administrative proceeding before the board. Disciplinary action by a church court would not automatically trigger further review of Mr. Knighton’s certification.”
Additional verbal or written allegations, however, would trigger a review, he said. He added that his staff would review the record to determine whether Knighton made “any misrepresentations” to the board or the advisory committee.
At the time of Knighton’s certification in 2004, the church case against Knighton was being conducted in secret, and even the final document dismissing him from the priesthood is noted as “explicitly subject to the pontifical secret.”
No public allegations have been made in Arizona against Knighton.
Hollands said the new information on Knighton, including his dismissal as a priest, is under review by district officials.
Knighton could not be reached for comment.
Clohessy’s group has urged the Diocese of Phoenix to alert the public about Knighton. The diocese has never posted a notification about Knighton, although it has done so regarding several other priests who lived in, worked in or visited the diocese.
Diocese spokesman Rob DeFrancesco said the diocese received no complaints about Knighton during the time he was a priest here.
“We are currently investigating this situation, and we are working to determine the most appropriate way to present this information to the public,” he said.
Based on dates in the Milwaukee documents, the first accusation against Knighton came in the early 1990s, but no formal allegation was made and the case apparently was forgotten. The first formal allegations were made in the early 2000s, referring to alleged abuses from 1976 to 1991.
It is unclear in the Milwaukee documents whether Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, head of the Phoenix Diocese at the time, knew about the earliest accusation.
O’Brien declined to provide faculties or permission to serve as a priest to Knighton as early as 1994, referencing Knighton’s personnel file and conversations with Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who led the Milwaukee Archdiocese at the time. The conversations with Weakland are not detailed in the documents, nor is Knighton’s file.
Despite O’Brien’s rejection, Knighton came to Phoenix in late 1994 and went to work for the Scottsdale district, according to the documents.
He left Phoenix in March 1995, returned sometime in 1997 and went to work at Desert Mountain High Schoolin Scottsdale. He went back to Milwaukee at the end of the school year but returned to Phoenix in August 2000, when he became assistant principal at St. Mary’s. O’Brien granted him priestly faculties at the time. The former bishop was not available for comment. Knighton apparently never returned to Milwaukee. He purchased a home in Phoenix in 2000 and another one in 2008.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese reached settlements with two of Knighton’s accusers in 2004, but it took seven more years before the Vatican’s final action, ending Knighton’s time as a priest.
Knighton fought his dismissal throughout the process and has put in a claim for $450,000 for back pay from the archdiocese in federal Bankruptcy Court. Knighton’s accusers told the Associated Press that the claim is “disturbing” and “grossly inappropriate.”